Africa Blast Suspects to Stand Trial in U.S.
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 28, 1998; Page A01
Two suspects with alleged ties to international terrorist Osama bin Laden will stand trial in New York in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, a major breakthrough after just 20 days of the largest overseas investigation in American history, officials said yesterday.
Mohamed Rashed Daoud al Owhali, a Yemeni national who allegedly rode on the explosive-laden truck that destroyed the American embassy in Nairobi on Aug. 7, was flown in from Nairobi Wednesday night, officials said. He was arraigned yesterday in a Manhattan courthouse on 12 counts of murder, one for each American killed in the attack, plus one count of conspiracy and one count of using weapons of mass destruction.
Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, a Palestinian engineer who allegedly helped plan the bombing, was hustled out of Nairobi yesterday and is expected to arrive in New York today, sources said. Odeh, who has told Pakistani authorities that he was part of an Islamic terrorist team recruited and financed by bin Laden, will be arraigned on similar charges, the sources said.
After meeting last week with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, Kenyan authorities made the surprising decision to allow the suspects to be tried in the United States, even though the vast majority of the 252 people killed and over 5,000 people wounded in the bombing were Kenyan. A simultaneous bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania claimed 10 lives, none of them American, and injured 86 people, including two Americans.
Yesterday, just a week after U.S. cruise missiles struck targets associated with bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan, Freeh held a triumphant news conference in Washington to announce that al Owhali was in U.S. custody. Freeh said the suspect had confessed to FBI agents that he was trained in Afghan camps affiliated with bin Laden, that he had attended meetings and conferences with bin Laden, and that he had expected to die as a martyr in the bombing.
In a gathering of top law enforcement and national security officials, Freeh was joined by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Attorney General Janet Reno, along with representatives from Kenya and Tanzania. All of them emphasized the unusual level of cooperation in the case: among U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic agencies, as well as among American and African investigators.
"Seldom has such an international effort been so productive so quickly," Freeh said. "From our perspective, this stands out as a shining example."
President Clinton hailed the arrest of al Owhali as a milestone in the struggle against terrorism, and vowed to continue that struggle on several fronts.
"We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal law enforcement, diplomacy and, when necessary, America's military might," Clinton said.
An FBI affidavit unsealed yesterday gives an outline of the case against al Owhali, whose alias is Khalid Salim Saleh bin Rashed, as well as his links to bin Laden, a renegade Saudi financier described by Freeh as a "primary subject" of the investigation.
The affidavit suggests that al Owhali was part of a wide-ranging terrorist conspiracy led by bin Laden, although it does not specifically accuse bin Laden of anything but extremist views. So far, bin Laden has not been charged in connection with the East Africa bombings, but a Manhattan grand jury has returned a sealed indictment implicating him as a "ringleader" in earlier terrorist attacks, sources said.
According to the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Daniel J. Coleman, al Owhali traveled to Nairobi on July 31 from Lahore, Pakistan. A week later, while riding in the truck that was carrying the bomb to its destination, he threw a flash grenade at an embassy guard, officials said.
Al Owhali later told the FBI that "the operation was supposed to be a martyrdom operation," but he ended up in a Nairobi hospital with lacerations on his hands and face and a large wound on his back, the affidavit said. He was interviewed there two days after the blast by Kenyan police, who later arrested him. At the hospital, al Owhali discarded two keys that fit a padlock on the rear of the truck used in the blast, and three bullets from a gun he had left in the truck. Hospital employees later found the keys and bullets, the affidavit said.
On Aug. 12, Owhali gave his first interview to the FBI, saying he had been standing in a bank near the embassy at the time of the explosion. He also claimed he was still wearing the same clothing as on Aug. 7, "despite the fact that his clothes bore no traces of blood," but later admitted he had lied, the affidavit said.
On Aug. 20, al Owhali gave the FBI a detailed confession, saying he had been trained in explosives, hijacking and kidnapping in camps in Afghanistan. Some of the camps were affiliated with al Qaida, "an international terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden, dedicated to opposing non-Islamic governments with force and violence," the affidavit said.
In his confession, al Owhali also said he had attended conferences and meetings with bin Laden, as well as a press conference bin Laden held in May in Khost, Afghanistan. Al Owhali said he was aware bin Laden had issued an edict described as a "fatwa," or religious order, urging Muslims to kill Americans, the affidavit said.
After a brief hearing in Manhattan yesterday, which he followed through an Arabic translation, al Owhali was ordered held without bail pending a Sept. 28 court appearance.
Freeh refused to provide further details about al Owhali, but sources said he was not a key player in bin Laden's far-flung network. "Someone they're sending to be a martyr is not exactly a crucial cog in the wheel," one source said. "Obviously, this guy was expendable."
In a financial affidavit applying for free legal services, al Owhali a short, thin, bearded man with dark curly hair said he is single, unemployed and received $12,000 in the past year from his father. His only listed asset is a 1992 Chevrolet Caprice.
Sources also said that there is a sealed indictment waiting for Odeh. On the day of the bombings, he was arrested by Pakistani authorities at the Karachi airport, from where he was allegedly trying to slip into Afghanistan. He reportedly confessed to the Pakistanis that he helped plan the Nairobi attack as part of a jihad, or holy war, organized by bin Laden, and said his only regret was that so many non-Americans were killed.
Odeh reportedly told the Pakistanis that six of his accomplices had escaped, but Freeh declined to comment on other suspects. He said that more than 300 FBI employees are working on the case in Africa alone, a record for an overseas probe. They have conducted more than 550 interviews, and sent more than three tons of debris to the FBI lab in Washington for testing.
"A great wrong has been done, but we are not going to rest," Reno said. "We are not going to forget. We are going to pursue every last murderer until justice is done."
Whatever the results, they are likely to be determined in this country. Freeh would not comment on his negotiations with the Kenyans, but they were apparently worried that prosecuting the suspects could expose them to additional terrorist acts, sources said. Col. Maurice Otieno Oyugi, Kenya's military attache in Washington, declined comment as well. "It is surprising," one U.S. official said. "You'd think they'd want first crack at these guys."
Freeh said the prosecution of the suspects in the United States would not necessarily preclude future prosecution in Kenya, although they could face the death penalty here.
Last week's missile strikes had focused attention on military responses to terrorism, but yesterday's announcement shifted the spotlight to the legal options. Since 1986, when Congress passed the so-called "long-arm law" extending U.S. jurisdiction overseas, 11 suspected terrorists have been returned here from abroad. While American officials kept hedging about the missile attack that flattened a plant in Sudan Berger said it was "almost certainly" making chemical weapons they had nothing but praise for the exhaustive FBI investigation.
"Sadly, there is nothing we can do to bring back the colleagues and loved ones who were taken from us 20 days ago," Albright said yesterday. "But the announcement today indicates how serious we are about bringing those responsible to justice."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Co.